LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 1 - Spring 2007
Editor of this issue: Patrick Chura
Bonnie Carlson served in Lithuania with the Peace Corps from 1992–94, teaching English in Trakai and Vilnius. She has since worked in Bulgaria and Bangladesh, and now lives with her husband and their two children in Frankfurt, Germany, where she is a freelance writer.
It was a small village, really. I needn’t even name it. If you are a Lithuanian, or have ever been to Lithuania, you will know it even without its name, because there are hundreds like it.
In this small village, in this case not too far from Vilnius, there were some old houses and some new. There was farmland, and there was at least one lake worth fishing in. Before the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, this village was relatively easy to live in, and there were many families in it who owned comfortable homes and enough land to make a living from in addition to supporting their own families with winter carrots, onions and potatoes.
Folks did well in this village because they worked hard. It could have been Vermont from the way it was described to me. It was mostly agricultural and homes were not showy but they were nice.
Zina grew up in this village. She was born to a family that owned a bit of land. Not so much that her family was known beyond their own town, but they did well for themselves and enjoyed their lives. There were even a few poets in the family, published poets. They were proud of their literary heritage and their good work ethic. They were a close family. But the Soviets who came to this village did not see a close-knit family of poets and farmers. They saw hectares for the taking, and take them they did, sending Zina and her family to Siberia.
It’s a well-worn Lithuanian tale, of families being sent away so that the land could be taken by the occupying forces, but that doesn’t make it any sadder to hear or lonesome to imagine. Zina was young when she left by force, barely a teenager, and she spent quite a bit of her youth in Siberia before being returned to what had become community property in service to Moscow under the new rules of labor, service, and loyalty.
She worked hard, as was required, and she raised a family. Her husband died too young, in a boating accident, and she raised her family alone after that. They grew up well; they enjoyed quiet pleasures, as approved by the state or enjoyed in whispers like those in which their poems were read. And then the Russians left.
It did not require a war to be rid of them, but it did cost some Lithuanian lives that day at the television tower. Leave they did, however, and Zina reclaimed her home. Not quite as grand as it once was, nor as it might have been had they been allowed to remain there throughout her life, but she now had her own home again and enough land to grow a garden for herself and her family, and to enjoy a cup of tea at the roughhewn wooden table in that garden on a sunny day. And they no longer had to whisper their poetry.
Zina, for all her strength, was nevertheless a quiet woman. She might not have been had she not had to be quiet for those fifty years, but she bore the tale of a nation, just as surely as I bore the tale of my nation.
On one side of my family, we have been in America since the early 1700s, having arrived from Ireland and England, and once upon a time owning a small feed store on a dirt road that 18 ran from south to north in the very sparsely populated state of Vermont – which until very recently could statistically claim to have more cows than people.
There is a bay in Lake Champlain named, I believe, after my family. We weren’t wealthy; that’s not why our name is on the map of America. I suspect it’s just that so little of the state was named when my family first moved there that just about anyone could name a bay or an island or a town. I feel a certain pride at coming from such a beautiful place, at being a part of the history of what I feel to be a great nation, even on days when that nation saddens, confounds, or even infuriates me.
On the other side of my family, we are new to America, having arrived by ship from Scandinavia at the beginning of the Depression in the early 1930s, passing through Ellis Island and eventually finding jobs and a home in Massachusetts.
That side of my family tells the immigrant tale of not knowing the language, finding low-paying jobs but working hard at them, saving enough money to finally build a small home, and raising a son who was able to reach for, and achieve in many ways, the American dream. Unlike Zina we were always welcomed in our nation, even as immigrants.
Historically, we are not a sentimental nation bent on remembering; we are more inclined to forward motion. Buildings are built and then they come down to make room for newer buildings. We don’t hold on to things. We consume a lot, but we don’t value what already exists as much as we reach for what has not yet even been invented. We love our history, the very pluck that formed our nation, but we also seek to build more, build new, build tall. We love our cultural histories of many lands coming together in our one great country, and we celebrate our diversity. We eat foods from many lands, yet we love our regional favorites (for me it is a boiled lobster and corn on the cob; each region has its own one great thing). But we are also fiercely proud of those qualities that are true to, and born of, America; and sometimes we are fearful when these are different from what we have become.
We look into our ancestry and want to know whence our families hailed and what kind of people we come from. When we come of age, many of us move away from our mothers and fathers, our grandparents and siblings, and rarely look back, leaving each to fend for him- or herself, with occasional phone calls or holiday visits sufficing. This is our nation as I see it. Three hundred million Americans mean 300 million tales to tell, many quite different from my own.
I am forty-three years old and so far have lived at thirty- two different addresses on three continents. It is, I realize, somewhat extreme even by American standards, but it is not entirely unheard of. From where I sat at the age of twenty-eight, a newly minted Peace Corps volunteer leaning my forehead against the cool window of the airplane that was taxiing along the tarmac in Riga, Latvia, watching as we rolled past hastily covered MIG fighter jets from a bygone era of conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, and approached the diminutive (yet fiercely Soviet-looking, to me) airport – this is what I brought with me.
I brought an immigrant tale and I brought a first-Americans’ tale. I brought a love of history and a pride in inventiveness and imagination. I brought a love of family and my home, even as I left for someone else’s country without the slightest sense of loss at having left that very family and home. As I approached a region utterly unknown to me, with cultural norms I had yet to learn and people I could not name or even yet imagine, I had nothing but the highest of hopes. There would be foods I’d never eaten, forests and beaches I’d never seen, architecture and art that had not yet influenced my eye.
At the moment of my arrival, I was every bit an American raised in the 1960s, longing to broaden my horizons, not as a colonist, but as an adventurer, a sociologist, an ethnographer, a scientist. I wanted to help.
I was naïve and ignorant to be sure, but I was working at remedying those flaws in my character and hoping for an education I could use for life, while at the same time wanting very much to leave something of worth behind, a labor of substance, a positive relationship, an informative tale, some small piece of knowledge or shared experience that would inform someone else in a way that he or she could use well. I couldn’t really hope for deep impact; I was too young and inexperienced. But I hoped that if I focused on working toward a common good for Lithuanians, alongside them, that even if all I’d succeeded in doing after two years was to teach some teenagers what a gerund was or how to identify a comma splice that alone would have made the trip worth making.
I was humble, but hopeful. I both doubted my credentials for the work I’d taken on and believed utterly in my ability to rise above that lack of credentials with hard work and commitment. In short, while I might have been young and naïve, I was at the least well-intentioned.
Most travelers have learned the valuable lesson that you are almost certainly not going to learn what you think you will when you set off on an adventure of any worth. In fact, many times it’s the surprising lesson that we actually seek, the very reason we leave home. Sure, some seek a comfortable hotel room that will replicate their home country, despite the fact that they’ve flown half way around the world to be in another country, but I am not talking about those kinds of travelers. I am talking about adventurers.
Adventurers want to learn from their travels, and I certainly had in mind to learn as well – a language, a way of life, some history, my new profession, and of course how to differentiate between the mushrooms you love to cook with and 21 those that will kill you. I learned some of those things, but not all (I still buy my mushrooms at the store, just to be safe).
But the most surprising lesson, the one that has stayed with me the longest, even as my Lithuanian vocabulary shrinks by the moment with disuse, was not the one I sought, and it was not one that was even mine to learn. It was someone else’s lesson that I was honored to witness, one she learned in front of me, because of me, but not because I taught it and not because I even knew it was mine to give.
My best lesson was that, if you stand very still, if you don’t speak, if you allow others to take their time with you, there will be silent lessons to learn. And as much as any words spoken at the front of a classroom, in teaching with your silence, you will never feel more powerful, useful, or proud of who and what you are.
The very reason it was I who taught the lesson was that conflict of being an American—those qualities that make us who we are as Americans, our naiveté, our sense of adventure and hope, and the nation we carry sometimes as a light and wonderful gift, and sometimes as a burden or even an embarrassment.
America is a complicated place. The people I know there are kind and good people who lead average lives and do everyday tasks like anyone else in the world: shop for dinner, sometimes garden, mostly we work hard, and we have families we love and care for.
But there are politicians and there is war; and there are international policies that not everyone likes. And that dynamic of the cruelty and kindness of nations – that manner in which all nations have elements of both and some will win and some will lose when power is grabbed, when power is used sometimes for good and sometimes not – made Zina cry on the day we first met.
Zina bore the tale of exile, while I bore the tale of America in the 1960s. By the time I was born, Zina’s exile had ended, but her life in Soviet Lithuania was being learned every day. She was learning the language of silence and occupation, as I was learning to speak my first words in a country awash in peace signs, political protest, emerging rock-and-roll traditions, an era of women taking off their bras and walking out of often loveless and unequal marriages that they had once been told were their lot in life. Like a snake growing out of its skin, the America of my childhood was emerging in new ways, while Lithuania was learning to shrink, to defer, to accept, to become less than it had ever been, to live as an occupied nation.
At the time I didn’t understand, but later I did. When I walked up to Zina on that summer day in 1992 and said in my best Lithuanian, my stilted and undoubtedly horribly accented and grammatically slain Lithuanian, “Hello. Thank you for inviting me to your home,” and she cried, she was not crying because of who I was at all. She cried because when I walked up to her that day, an American walked up to her.
I could have been any American at all. My credentials and experience, as it happens, were entirely appropriate to the moment. Not as an English teacher, but as an American. It was not me, but where I came from. And it was her belief that the moment an American walked into her yard – that was the very moment the Russians had left. Really left.
Until she heard my terrible Lithuanian, the Russians had not yet left her soul. Maybe they still haven’t, although I am told she is still alive and well in her small village. But that day they certainly took a giant step backward and away from her life, and for Zina it was cathartic. It was cathartic for me too. While Zina was able to put more distance between herself and a horrible past, I was able to put less distance between myself and my fortunate future.
We were both going to very good places; and for this short part of our individual journeys, we were walking together. Zina gave me the gift of understanding the power of our nations 23 upon us. For better or worse, we are a product of our nations. I am a product of England and Ireland and Sweden as surely as I am a product of America. Zina was a product of Lithuania as surely as she was a product of Soviet Russia.
And when two nations stand face to face in the bodies of their most nameless citizens, that is when lessons are learned, worlds collide in great ways and – in the silence that follows a greeting awkwardly offered, that accompanies the thoughts within us, the visions before us, and the histories that create us – we become more human.
So let this be my love letter to Lithuania, my greeting to friends there still, and my most heartfelt thanks to the nation that allowed me to visit for two years. In those two years, I learned more than any college ever taught me, became more human than staying home could ever have allowed me to become, and changed the trajectory of my life forever.